Alaska Environmental Conservation Director Insists Cruise Lines are Regulating Wastewater Emissions, But Toxins Remain a Concern

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

A few months ago our cruise ship lawyers reported on a major concern that has been surrounding the cruise line industry for many years – wastewater – and subsequent bills that have been introduced to provide leniency for the cruise industry when it comes to their sewage and waste emissions. Although media sources have been focusing on the number of accidents that have befallen the industry as of late, including the Carnival Triumph fire and most recently, the tragic incident in Australia involving two passengers who went overboard from the Carnival Spirit, wastewater has always been a problem for the industry, but one environmental leader in Alaska seems to believe cruise lines are finally cleaning up their act – literally.

According to the state official in charge of water quality, cruise lines have been taking the necessary steps to limit the impact their vessels have on the environment and have made considerable changes in the last fifteen years to reduce toxins in wastewater emissions.

Michelle Bonnet Hale, the director of the Division of Water for the Department of Environmental Conservation  in Alaska, addressed the Sitka Chamber of Commerce yesterday, discussing the several ways in which cruise lines have been trying to minimize their impact on the environment by making sure wastewater emissions meet quality standards.

Ever since Alaska’s governor Sean Parnell  introduced a bill to cut back wastewater regulations for the cruise industry this Spring,  Hale has been on a mission to assure the public that the state will not fail to ensure cruise ship wastewater meets quality sanitation standards.

HB 80 repealed many of the regulations that were placed on cruise ships by the public in a 2006 citizen initiative regarding standards for wastewater discharge in Alaskan waters, allowing water samples to be taken in mixing zones behind vessels, instead of at the point of discharge.

Hale noted that the cruise industry had already begun to upgrade its sanitation technology in 2004, after several cases involving pollution brought the dangers of wastewater emissions to the environment and marine life to light.  However, Hale also admitted to a problem involving wastewater that has yet to be fixed . The director admitted that the state is still working on how to reduce toxins in wastewater, including ammonia, copper, nickel, and zinc in cruise ship wastewater, which have been proven to have a damaging effect on marine life.

Environmentalists have long argued that these toxins have an adverse affect on the environment – especially in the pristine waters of Alaska. Ammonia has been found to contribute to algae blooms and is harmful to shellfish. Copper, a heavy metal, has shown to be harmful to salmon.

Yet, Hale, a chemist, assured the Chamber  that her division knows how to protect Alaska’s waters from harm.

“We have the tools,” she said.

However, Hale has been met with opposition from several concerned politicians and preservation organizations who argue that Alaska is buckling under cruise line threats and is destroying the environment.

Cruise lines threatened to pull their ships out of Alaska – one of the most popular itineraries – if wastewater emission standards were not loosened. Instead of demanding better technology to address the problem of toxins in the emissions, Parnell took the issue in the opposite direction, allowing cruise lines another opportunity to go back to the good old days for them.

Yet, even though there are laws in place that regulate cruise ship wastewater standards, many lines just ignore them. If lines can tiptoe around regulations and try to get away with doing as they please, the last thing that should be done is to make it easier for ships to do so by rolling back sanitation standards.

Last December, Princess Cruises was fined $20,000 after one of its ships, the Golden Princess, dumped pool water into the notoriously clean environment and ecosystem of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in Alaska in May 2011.

Princess’ actions directly violated the Clean Water Act, demonstrating the cruise industry’s blatant disregard for pollution created by their ships and how it impacts the environment and marine wildlife.

Hale seems to have a lot of faith that the cruise industry will turn over a new, sanitary leaf, but following several cases of Norovirus outbreaks and the Carnival Triumph debacle that followed the cruise ship fire with sewage and waste being spewed throughout the disabled vessel, we have to wonder if perhaps Hale is a little too optimistic.

Cruise lines have been given several chances to implement better safety and sanitation protocols fleet-wide, yet it seems that even when lines claim they are going to improve protocols, they have done little to back up their statements.

The key is to watch what they do and not what they say. There can be a huge difference between the two.

Read up on wastewater concerns and Alaska’s bill here.

As a final thought, many people think the largest polluters of the oceans of the world is the United States Navy which has enjoyed an exemption from the same type of laws being discussed in this article.

Maybe Alaska needs to pull the welcome mat from all polluters not just the cruise line industry which has been moving in the right direction just at what one might consider to be a glacial pace.